George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Addressing Chronic Absenteeism With Emotion Regulation Strategies

Worries about issues like bad grades keep some kids out of class, and learning new ways to deal with these feelings can bring them back.

March 6, 2024
BonNontawat / iStock

Nearly 30 percent of K–12 students in the United States were chronically absent in the 2022–23 school year. Have you had a student who refuses to go to school? How about a student who attends but skips class? Or a student who puts their head on the table when told to work on a task during class?

As adults, we may run because we think we can’t handle a situation in what’s known as avoidance, or we may hide because we don’t want to deal with a situation in what psychologists call escape. Students are no different. Avoidance/escape is a key factor in current national concerns about student absenteeism and disengagement. Think about 15-year-old “Avery,” who experiences an upset stomach because of test anxiety. Or 16-year-old “Andres,” who puts his head on the table because of frustration with schoolwork.

Avoidance/escape can be helpful in situations perceived as threatening or uncontrollable because it prevents harm and provides immediate (albeit temporary) emotional relief. Imagine 14-year-old “Alisha,” who refuses to go to school because of bullies. Or 17-year-old “Amir,” who skips class because of teachers labeling and calling him a “bad kid.”

This emotion regulation strategy becomes unhelpful, however, when used excessively. It increases our belief that we can’t handle the situation or that the situation is beyond our control. Students frequently avoid or escape from completing a task that they don’t like doing, or they avoid interacting with others who have done something that hurt or upset them. As an educator, what can you do when your student uses avoidance/escape in an unhelpful manner?

Encouraging Vulnerability

You can encourage students to explore their emotions in situations they tend to avoid or escape from. Research on emotionally based school avoidance looks at children and adolescents who have difficulty attending or engaging in school due to negative emotions. Using a mood meter helps students identify their emotions and their energy levels.

Aptly called “Name It to Tame It” by Dr. Daniel Siegel, noticing and labeling emotions that are influencing their mind and body enables students to be more aware of and make better sense of their emotions in different situations. Or, you can be a role model by sharing how your own emotions affect the way you think or act and how you use avoidance/escape at times, too (hint: the piled-up laundry).

You can also encourage students to reflect on the helpfulness of avoiding or escaping from emotional situations by asking them, “Is it helpful for you to avoid/escape this situation?” If avoidance/escape is perceived to be helpful to students, you can listen to and understand without judgment the ways in which avoidance/escape is helpful to them. This validates their emotions and normalizes their use of the strategy.

You can also prompt students to consider the long-term helpfulness of avoidance/escape by asking them, “Would it be helpful for you in the future to keep avoiding/escaping this situation?” Self-reflection facilitates students’ awareness of avoidance/escape behaviors and insight into the utility of such behaviors. Research reveals that understanding why students choose to not attend or engage in school allows a more proactive and targeted approach to increasing school attendance and engagement.

Providing Alternative Strategies

If avoidance/escape is perceived not to be helpful to students, you can support them to add or use other strategies in their emotion regulation toolbox, such as problem-solving, reframing, and/or relaxation, to regulate their emotions.

Research shows that enhancing students’ emotion regulation improves school attendance and engagement. Take student disengagement, for example—you can use activities that students enjoy as rewards for engaging in activities they enjoy less (problem-solving strategy based on the Premack principle), shift students’ mindset from “I can’t do it” to “I can’t do it yet” (reframing strategy based on Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s growth mindset), and/or choose a reasonable work interval for students and have a break of laughter yoga or mindfulness coloring after each interval (relaxation strategy based on mind-body medicine).

You can also support students to gradually confront situations that they tend to avoid or escape from (but do not involve harm) one at a time in manageable chunks. Remember that it’s OK to start with baby steps. For example, students can start with regular practices of one relaxation technique, like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Research demonstrates that gradual exposure builds students’ tolerance to uncomfortable emotions, challenges their dire imagined reality (or worst-case scenario), and boosts their confidence in handling the situation.

Using a growth-mindset staircase, you can track students’ progress in approaching an undesired situation by asking them which step they have reached or will reach today. Note that this may be a slow process requiring much scaffolding and positive reinforcement (such as words of encouragement or verbal praise).

By guiding and supporting students to better regulate their emotions in both academic and social situations, we can promote and maintain emotional states that enable them to feel better and do better at school and to be part of the solution to the student attendance and engagement crisis.

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  • 9-12 High School

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